Progress Energy says Asheville coal-ash ponds safe

A Progress Energy spokesperson reports that the coal-ash storage ponds at its Asheville plant are closely monitored and safe. Following the Dec. 22 catastrophic failure of a retaining wall at a giant waste pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil coal-fired power plant west of Knoxville, Mountain Xpress inquired about the condition of such ponds in Western North Carolina.

“Our ash ponds are operating within all local, state and federal regulations,” says Progress Energy spokesperson Scott Sutton. At its Asheville Plant—located along the French Broad River at Lake Julian—the company has two storage ponds for coal ash, created when coal is burned to create electricity. One pond was created in 1964, when the Lake Julian plant first opened; this pond was closed in 1982, when Progress Energy built a second pond. The inactive pond, Sutton further explains, is now used as a wetland site that filters wastewater from the plant. It has a 90-foot earthen dam. The active, 50-acre pond, which can store 450 million gallons of coal ash, has a 95-foot-high earthen dam. Neither pond is lined; but current regulations do not require such ponds to be lined.

Sutton also reports that Progress Energy employees inspect each dam monthly; once a year, an independent engineering firm inspects them; and every five years, an independent firm conducts a comprehensive inspection. Progress also participates in a voluntary groundwater-monitoring program: Every six months, the company collects samples, tests them and reports the results to state officials. (Xpress is reviewing the latest reports.)

“We try to re-use as much of the coal ash as possible,” Sutton adds. In 2007, coal-ash material was used for expansion projects at the Asheville Regional Airport. Other common uses for the material—which neither state nor federal agencies have declared hazardous, Sutton points out—is commonly used in concrete fabrication and such consumer products as bowling balls. When coal is burned, the remaining noncombustibles have the texture of sand and contain a mix of elements, such as silica and heavy metals (including arsenic and mercury)—“all the things that you will find in the earth’s crust,” says Sutton.

Sutton also emphasizes that the Asheville plant’s ponds are significantly smaller than the one that collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant, which released more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash, according to revised estimates. The sludge flooded 15 homes in a 400-acre area west of Knoxville. The ashy sludge contains such toxins as mercury, arsenic and lead— all of which could seep into the ground and flow downriver. It was being stored in an unlined 40-acre retaining pond at the Kingston plant

The Asheville dams, furthermore, “are built to withstand 100-year-floods,” he adds. “The first thing we did, after the Tennessee spill, was to pull our data [to] see if there’s anything we’ve missed. [When] the TVA investigation is done, we will apply the lessons learned, if applicable [to the Asheville plant]. Progress Energy is absolutely committed to the safety of our employees, the community and the environment.”

Contributing editor Margaret Williams


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16 thoughts on “Progress Energy says Asheville coal-ash ponds safe

  1. tatuaje

    When coal is burned, the remaining noncombustibles have the texture of sand and contain a mix of elements, such as silica and heavy metals (including arsenic and mercury)—“all the things that you will find in the earth’s crust,” says Sutton.

    Oh, it’s found in the earth’s crust you say? Must be perfectly safe, then….carry on….

    Progress Energy is absolutely committed to the safety of our employees, the community and the environment.”

    as long as it’s still profitable….

    Sorry…spokespeople for energy companies create a similar reaction in me that spokespeople for tobacco companies cause …

    Thanks for this story, Margaret…please keep them coming…

  2. Margaret Williams

    Stay tuned. We’re looking into this issue from several angles and not just what Progress Energy is doing (or not doing). Their wetland project on the old site has garnered cautious praise from local environmentalists, for example. But it’s perplexing that coal ash is considered toxic if it makes into the air, but inert when stored in ways that could lead to materials such as arsenic leaching into nearby groundwater (and the French Broad River).

  3. nuvue

    Boy am I ever relieved, so glad Progress energy is monitoring the ponds so well…..
    Might better go out there and snoop around myself…..probably get some buckshot though….you know, gotta watch out fer terrists

  4. Margaret Williams

    The NY Times has a new report concerning the national view on coal-ash storage ponds. It repeats one tidbit recently broadcast in an NPR story: The EPA has been studying the issue for 28 years. The Times report also notes that regulation has been left to the states, most of which don’t regulate storage, despite the known level of contaminants such as arsenic, which leaches into ground- and surface-water sources because most ponds are unlined.

    It also mentions that in 2003, TVA didn’t pursue an improved storage method:

    “The Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the Kingston Fossil Plant, where the Tennessee spill occurred, tried for decades to fix leaks at its ash pond. In 2003, it considered switching to dry disposal, but balked at the estimated cost of $25 million, according to a report in The Knoxville News Sentinel. That is less than the cost of cleaning up an ash spill in Pennsylvania in 2005 that was a 10th of the size of the one in Tennessee.”

    See the whole story at

  5. vrede

    “Our ash ponds are operating within all local, state and federal regulations.”

    I don’t know enough about PE, but one of the problems with the TVA ashastrophe was that it was managed under solid waste rules despite being a slurry. I’m sure TVA would have said the same thing about their ash ponds in November.

  6. Margaret Williams

    That appears to be one of the regulatory problems: Who’s watching the hen house?

  7. Jeff Fobes

    Two items:
    1) New York Times just reported: “Hundreds of Coal Ash Dumps Lack Regulation” See

    2)Asheville/Woodfin almost had their own coal ash storage, until Woodfin nixed the lease option in May 2007 on the 70-acre tract adjacent to the former Buncombe County landfill in Woodfin.

    “While the lease document stipulates that the ‘primary purpose for which the Leased Land has been leased is for the anticipated construction and operation of a Combustion Turbine Electrical Power Plant,’ it also permits Progress to ‘use the Leased Land for any lawful purposes” and says the company “shall be entitled to store and/or utilize coal ash from its Asheville Steam Plant on the Leased Land.’ (quote from Xpress story at )

  8. Margaret Williams

    The Times piece was a good one, and thanks for noting the Xpress reference. I met a Chinese-American woman who went door to door in her neighborhood as she rallied people against that plant, which would have been downhill from her home. She’s a concert pianist who’s father was jailed for 18 years during the Cultural Revolution. She taught me a lot about democracy in action.

  9. Piffy!

    “Is there any evidence Progress Energy is doing an inadequate job here? ”

    We should just wait until a major accident to look into it, i suppose.

  10. Jeff Fobes

    from Katuah on Twitter:
    Found thru @fred1st Twitter coups bigmedia on #coalash disaster

    The link is to this article:
    Media Mayhem: Can Twitter save the earth?
    How a social networking site beat the major media on a major environmental story.
    By Peter Dykstra

  11. tatuaje

    SECOND TVA SPILL: Dam Breaks At Alabama Coal Plant

    TVA is investigating a leak from a gypsum pond at its Widows Creek coal-burning power plant in northeastern Alabama, a spokesman said at about 10:45 a.m. Central Time.

    The leak, discovered before 6 a.m. has been stopped, according to John Moulton, with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

    “Some materials flowed into Widows Creek, although most of the leakage remained in the settling pond,” he said.

    Gypsum is a byproduct of coal-burning power plants when “scrubbers” are added that use limestone spray to clean air emissions. This pulls sulfur dioxide from the emissions.

    The entire article can be found here:

  12. slowlocal

    “In North Carolina, where 14 power plants disposed of 1.3 million tons in ponds in 2005, state officials do not require operators to line their ponds or monitor groundwater, safety measures that help protect water supplies from contamination. Similar safety measures are not required in Kentucky, Alabama, and Indiana”

    “The Environmental Protection Agency eight years ago said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used to dispose of wastes produced from burning coal.

    The agency has yet to act.

    As a result, coal ash ponds are subject to less regulation than landfills accepting household trash, even though the industry’s own estimates show that ash ponds contain tens of thousands of pounds of toxic heavy metals”

    full story:

    “arsenic levels at this spill are 35 to 300 times the EPA standard for drinking water.
    full story:

    is there any doubt that this coal waste should be regulated as hazardous, or even at a minimum regulated as the subtitle D standards for solid waste that were implemented in 1996 and requuire liners and groundwater monitoring? as a hydrogeologist and former state solid waste planning manager for Kentucky, we also had a massive spill in Martin County, Ky, larger than the Exxon Valdese, and it was woefully underreported in our local press. How many more water bodies, fauna, flora, humans and homes have to be devastated before the EPA will act to require miniimum standards for these “ponds”???

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